“An engaging snapshot of not merely a time and place, but a mindset.”
by Ken Bakely
It takes a while to figure out exactly what Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood is trying to be – not in terms of wanting to pigeonhole it into a genre, mind you, but simply trying to assess what connects its disparate parts. Eventually you get there, and it seems quite clear. But this is not preordained for a movie that begins with Stanley (voiced by Jack Black as an adult narrator, and Milo Coy as a child) – a ten-year-old boy in suburban Houston in the summer of 1969 who is being matter-of-factly recruited to lead the Apollo 11 mission as the first child on the moon – before ditching this astonishing setup for a seemingly unrelated nostalgia trip, with adult Stanley introducing us to his family, his childhood home, and the cultural and social milieu that made up his youth. Fantasy and memoir begin to casually intertwine, never quite overlapping, as the historic event nears in Stanley’s real world. Again, there is at first an urge to want to dig deep to find something you could call this work in totality. But considering all that is laid before us, Linklater’s spry, playful, and gorgeously animated ode to a childhood we suspect is not too unlike his own begins to take shape, it does a lot of the answering for us: this is an engaging snapshot of not merely a time and place, but a mindset, a stream-of-consciousness diatribe from a time in a kid’s life when if their circumstances aren’t exciting enough, they’ll just make up better ones.
After all, why tell us how you remember watching the real moon landing if you could tell a tale about going there yourself? For better or worse, that’s all there is to it. Apollo 10 1⁄2 gradually reveals itself to not really have “two parts” that are separate, as much as something that naturally leads from one idea to the other, and back again. Stanley is a storyteller in a very casual sense of the word, and this is his metaphysical memoir, putting us in his headspace at this very particular time in his life, when his expectations for the world were simple but lofty. We’re meant to smile at the enthusiastically recalled (and perhaps gently embellished – though of course not as much as the other parts of what he says) details of his early life, spent in a rambunctious family led by a NASA employee father (voiced by Bill Wise) and a penny-pinching mother (voiced by Lee Eddy). At length, Black, as present-day Stanley, regales the viewer with lists of the television shows he watched, the gelatin-infused family dinners that became so prevalent in the era, the music that he and his siblings had differing affinities for, and the consequential news events he was just old enough to know of but just too young to truly comprehend.
Linklater’s lilting style ensures that even the longest stretches of these diversions are scripted and executed with a soft affectation that’s never dry, per se. But when it becomes more of a self-conscious monologue – when the screen literally fills up with animated renditions of the logos for various TV shows, from Dark Shadows to Time Tunnel – it might not ever completely lose track, but it’s less than the movie is clearly capable of being. Apollo 10 1⁄2 is much better as a reflection on how memories form than it is a simple account of them. Stopping to list them, rather than letting this entire experience combine together into a continuous sprawl that doesn’t feel the need to overexplain what it’s going on about, feels counterintuitive. The film’s greatest successes come when it’s a cohesive whole – much like its smooth, vividly colorful animation, rotoscoped with the feeling of working through a fluid set of recollections, rather than just scattered pieces. After all, at the heart of the matter, Linklater examines how things – ideas, anecdotes – become part of our own narratives, imperfect but part of a greater understanding of who we might be at a given moment.
He nods to this in the movie’s closing scene, when Stan has fallen asleep on the couch during the moon landing, and his parents take him to bed. His father worries that he will not be able to tell his grandchildren that he saw this historic moment unfold. His mother wryly replies that with the way memory works, he’ll one day think he saw it all. It’s true – and then some: Stan was dreaming of setting foot on the moon himself. At that moment, the two narratives have fully collided. They’ve become one whole. Linklater has visualized the way we see the world in these formative years, and the way the world reflects back on us. That’s what Apollo 10 1⁄2 is most fundamentally about, and in that simple interaction, it all becomes that much easier to understand.